Mainstream congregations in Australia face challenges to bearing faithful Christian witness in anxious times. While we may hope to invite the wider public into a winsome and transformational community, defined and powered by our gospel freedom, we often find that instead we reflect the anxieties of our wider society. For many of us who hope for cultural change and greater missional impact, we remain among ‘our people,’ (i.e. our congregations or denominations of origin) in the hope that through our service others might find the spiritual release and empowerment that has brought us healing. Through my work in the Lutheran Church of Australia, Queensland District (LCAQD), I have observed unhealthy emotional dynamics between pastors and congregations. I postulate that there might be habitual behaviours (‘unwritten rules’) that are obstructing the flow of God’s healing in congregational life, an idea I explored within a Minor Thesis project with the University of Divinity. The purpose of my research was to explore whether other leaders within my denomination were observing similar dynamics to my own observations. I interviewed nine skilled practitioners whose current (or recent) service (paid or voluntary) in the Lutheran Church of Australia means they are routinely called upon to provide consultative services in the areas of pastoral ministry or human services to pastors and congregations of the LCAQD. My research question was ‘To what extent can theories of differentiation and/or co-dependency be of use for understanding the pastor-congregation relationship in LCAQD congregations?’ In my paper, I will discuss one key finding around emotional dynamics – interpersonal control – and mention two spiritual longings – identity and community – that emerged from my research.
Social capital has become a catchphrase of the late 20th and early 21st century in the fields of sociology, education, economics and politics for all that relates to human connection and the resources derived from those connections. While definitions and how it can be measured may be disputed, a simple definition is that of Michael Woolcock (1998, p.153), “The information, trust, and norms of reciprocity inhering in one’s social networks”. It has been noted by several theorists that churches are good sources of social capital (Putnam, 2003; Putnam, 2010, pp. 526-534; Unruh & Sider, 2005, p.219). Where Christians may see the church’s mission as one of bringing healing to both individuals and society, sociologists use the term social capital for similar concepts. For social capital to be generated, interaction must occur, and in this space the Christian brings with them their life experiences, faith tradition and beliefs to the encounter. Pierre Bourdieu (1990, p.53), one of the founders of social capital, proposed that each person has a ‘habitus’, similar to the ‘lifeworld’ of Jürgen Habermas (1998b). It could thus be proposed that in the production of social capital the Christian is constantly in the action of conducting practical theology. This paper discusses the social capital created by congregations in local communities in Australia’s multi-faith, multi-ethnic society, across a diverse range of social issues and situations. The qualitative research used to inform this paper was conducted across case study congregations of various Christian faith traditions, ranging from small to mega churches in size, and inner city to regional locations. In exploring how social capital was generated by Christian congregations in the community, themes of ethos, motivations and types of engagement were prominent.
On the whole, the Christian Church in Australia is said to be in decline. Yet a good number of local churches defy that trend and are growing in numbers, spiritual health and vitality. Building on quantitative and qualitative research undertaken in Australia and elsewhere, this paper highlights key insights about healthy churches. First, we look at how health is defined and measured. Second, factors associated with health are presented. Finally, we learn what churches have done to foster their vitality. Examples will be given from case studies of 15 churches that were identified from 2016 National Church Life Survey data as being strong on five vitality criteria – namely, the religiousness of the congregation, social capital, collective confidence/collective agency, the proportion of newcomers attending, and the proportion of young adults attending. The churches are diverse; they are from Catholic, evangelical Protestant and broad Protestant traditions, are situated in urban and rural contexts, range from small to large in size, and are either growing in attendance or are stable. Drawing on data from interviews and focus groups, as well as other textual data provided by the churches, processes of growing and maintaining church vitality are described. The aim is to provide opportunities for other church leaders to learn from the stories of diverse, flourishing churches in the Australian context.